Spielberg's Portrait of Lincoln Is A Bust

Filmmaker's Biopic Is Etch-A-Sketch of American Icon

Lincoln in Black and White: Steven Spielberg fails to strip away the myths surrounding Abraham Lincoln.
Getty Images
Lincoln in Black and White: Steven Spielberg fails to strip away the myths surrounding Abraham Lincoln.

By Jonathan Rosenbaum

Published November 09, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

My suspicion that Steven Spielberg can’t really do historical films isn’t anything new, although the fact that he keeps trying shows at least how ambitious he can be. Conversely, the fact that he keeps failing, at least in my opinion, may point to a wider incapacity on the part of his audience, meaning you and me — a failure to grasp and sustain Abraham Lincoln as a myth the way that John Ford and his audience could when Ford made “Young Mr. Lincoln” with Henry Fonda in 1939.

Some of this, of course, can be accounted for by the radical changes in mainstream film-going over 73 years: an audience that has been subdivided by targeting strategies and ancillary markets, reduced mainly to kids, artificially inflated by advertising budgets and split among homes, computers and theaters on screens of different sizes, shapes and textures. But it’s also a sign that in “Lincoln,” we’re much further away from our historical roots than American moviegoers were in 1939, even when a master storyteller and myth-spinner is in charge.

Leaving aside “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse” (neither of which I’ve seen), the diverse cavorting of Indiana Jones and the cartoon extravagance of “1941,” I think my troubles with Spielberg as a historian started with his ignorance about Jim Crow prohibitions in the Deep South involving the front seat of a car in “The Color Purple” (1985). And they weren’t exactly mitigated by “Empire of the Sun” (1987), which includes the boy hero’s glimpse of an A-bomb blast in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp without bothering to clarify whether this comes from Hiroshima or Nagasaki. (In J.G. Ballard’s novel, it’s clearly the latter.) Maybe this is because narrative clarity and fluidity always count for more with Spielberg than historical precision — which is also perhaps why the character of Emilie Schindler, who played a major role in saving Jewish lives, gets skimped in Spielberg’s version of “Schindler’s List,” a film that focuses almost entirely on her husband, Oskar. More generally, it might help explain why (and how) Spielberg correctly calculated that the easiest way to get a young audience interested in the Holocaust was to get the people to identify first with a glamorous and handsome Nazi war profiteer.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.